Studying the Lives of New York City Dogs at the Thinking Dog Center
By BETH HARPAZ
New York City dogs are truly a breed apart. They travel by subway, taxi, baby carriage, and backpack. They ignore sirens, ride elevators, and wear coats and boots in winter. And they think city parks are their private backyards because, well, they don’t have real backyards.
But what’s going on in those canine brains while they’re living their busy urban lives, hanging out at Yappy Hours and sidewalk cafes? Hunter College has opened the Thinking Dog Center to find out. The center, run by Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, is part of Hunter College’s Animal Behavior and Conservation Program.
“The goal is to empirically study dog behavior, cognition, and everything else in between,” said Byosiere. Among the questions Byosiere and Hunter students working at the center hope to answer: Are dogs susceptible to visual illusions? What kind of training methods are most effective? How do dogs spatially navigate their surroundings?
New York dog owners can volunteer their pets to participate as long as the dogs are at least 4 months old and friendly with people. Some studies require the dogs to come into the center (located a few blocks west of Times Square) just once or twice. Others involve a series of weekly visits. But anyone can enjoy images of the center’s canine visitors via @HunterTDC on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. On a recent morning, those visitors ranged from Penny, an adorable pitbull mix, to Jarvis, a fluffy white Samoyed.
One of Byosiere’s goals for the center is to make sure dogs “that come in have a really good time, that they enjoy what they’re doing, but that we’re also making sure that we’re being very clear about our scientific methods.” That means lots of play and rewards along with the goals and research. An experiment underway this summer involves visual discrimination and reversal learning. Dogs are presented with two toys, with a treat for them to find under the same toy each time. Once the dogs consistently identify the rewarded toy, the location of the treat is reversed and hidden under the other toy. The study is designed to find out how long it takes the dogs to figure out the switch, and what strategies they use while problem-solving.
Byosiere, who earned her Ph.D. at LaTrobe University in Australia, has also co-authored several studies based on research conducted before the Thinking Dog Center opened. One recent article in Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews reviewed unconventional approaches to raising scent detection dogs outside traditional training facilities (for example, training privately owned or fostered dogs for on-call deployment, or training shelter or rescue dogs). Another article, published in Applied Animal Behavior Science, investigated how luminance (brightness) affects canine perception of color using stimuli on computer monitors.
The center is also partnering with an out-of-state organization that trains working dogs to compare notes. Might that study show that city dogs are superior in some ways? Proud New York dog owners probably think they know the answer, but perhaps the Thinking Dog Center will produce scientific proof.